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Interview: Going on an Elephant Journey with Rob Laidlaw Part 2

Posted on July 18th, 2016 by pajamapress

This is the second part of our interview with Rob Laidlaw, the author of Elephant Journey. Our discussion about the three Toronto Zoo elephants moves into the dangers currently faced by elephants in the wild, the current projects that Zoocheck, Rob’s not-for-profit, is working on, and a sneak preview at Rob’s next book with Pajama Press. Click here to read Part One.

ElephantJourney_WebsiteS. It’s not just elephants in zoos that are in trouble. I read a recent New York Times article that said elephants in the wild are in danger of disappearing in the next ten years because of the ivory trade. Can you speak to that?

R. I don’t know if ten years is an accurate prediction, but certainly if things continue to go the way they are now in Africa—because poaching for ivory is mainly centered in Africa—then future prospects for elephants look bleak. And it doesn’t matter whether they’re bush elephants or forest elephants, poaching for ivory is a threat to all of them. I believe the estimate is that 96-100 elephants are killed every day for ivory. One of the big problems is that it’s organized crime and militias in areas of civil conflict that are killing them in order to fund their initiatives. So it’s a very, very challenging thing to deal with. Certainly within ten years, if things continue to go as they are now, we’re going to see drastically fewer elephants in Africa. There’s about 400 thousand estimated to be in Africa today. In the past, there were several million and their populations were connected to each other throughout Africa, but today they’re in fragmented pockets that are separate from each other. I think we’ll soon see many of those fragments devoid of elephants. I doubt they’ll all be gone from the wild in ten years, but they may be restricted to a much smaller number of protected areas.

S. What efforts are in place or being established to help protect wild elephants?

R. There are all kinds of things, at the individual level, non-governmental organizational level, and at every political level from local to international. But it’s a huge, complicated web of problems to deal with. You have organized crime syndicates that see elephant tusks, rhino horn and other wildlife products as extremely lucrative and safer for them to profit from than drugs or weapons. They are extremely challenging to combat. If it were only one-off killings of elephants because of human-elephant conflict or even habitat fragmentation, it’s conceivable you could manage things like that. But organized crime syndicates and militias who obtain ivory and transport it to buyers in consumer nations through sophisticated smuggling networks are tremendously difficult to pin down. There are people, organizations and governments who are trying to address this issue, but it seems clear that far more official time, energy and resources must be allocated for intelligence gathering and for fighting this problem in a more coordinated and aggressive way. We also need additional boots on the ground protecting elephants wherever they live in the wild. And it should go without saying that the import and sale of ivory everywhere should be banned.


Ivory seized for destruction by U.S. law enforcement. Photo credit: Gavin Shire / USFWS USFWS ivory crush at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on November 14, 2013. Sourced via the Creative Commons.

S. That makes sense, and any trade in ivory should absolutely be banned. So, that same NYT article discussed how elephant conservation is the latest hot celebrity cause in Hollywood. Do you think that sort of media attention helps or hinders the push for elephant conservation?

R. I think it helps. Will it solve the problems? I don’t know. We’ve seen lots of celebrity support for all kinds of things, but while it does generate political and public awareness, it doesn’t always result in any resolution of the issue being discussed. But obviously the first step is letting people know. The theory is that with more people knowing about it, there will then be more pressure on governments to address the issue, because more people are bringing it to their attention. In real world politics, that’s not always the case. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what people think or what the facts are. For elephants however, I think a lot of people, including many politicians, are now listening. But even if they weren’t, the alternative is to do nothing, and that’s not acceptable. So even when things seem dire there may be that particular person, group of people, or political official who takes that message to heart and decide to make it their cause. Maybe then they’ll take it to a place where real change can occur.

S. What would you most like people to know about elephants?

R. I have friends who work with and care for a diversity of animal species. One of them operates a chimpanzee sanctuary, with more than a dozen of these enormously intelligent, complex sentient apes. At the sanctuary, they don’t actually call them animals. Instead, they refer to them as, “the people in the sanctuary….” They know them as individuals and understand that in many ways they are very much like us, so they see the chimps very differently than most people would. I think elephants are similar and are far more like us than most people imagine. They have almost the same life-span as humans, and enormous brains. They’re one of the most social animals in the world, possibly even more so than humans or orcas. Females spend their entire lives in the same family group, and they all have their own quirks, personalities, desires and needs. They develop friendships! It’s thought that some elephants will know two or three hundred other elephants during their lifetimes. They may recognize old friends that they haven’t seen in ten or fifteen years, when they get together in big congregations. They appear genuinely excited to see each other again, and no doubt they are. When you look at them on an individual basis, you see they really are very much like us. Except they’re elephants. It may sound silly but I really think more people should see them as elephant-people. If they saw them that way, maybe their perspective would change and, hopefully they’d then want better treatment for all elephants.

S. Before I started my internship here, I was thinking of sponsoring a baby elephant at an orphanage in Kenya. Can you recommend any reliable elephant-focused charities for someone who might want to help out?

R. The one you’re mentioning is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and they’re known all around the world. Their program is very successful. They’ve introduced dozens of orphaned elephants back into the wild. They do the same thing with rhinos. If someone were interested in Indian elephants, there’s a group called Wildlife SOS that does fantastic work rescuing street elephants. They’re also trying to protect wild elephants and working elephants in timber camps. The Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand that also does fantastic work helping elephants in need. And a colleague of mine has just started an elephant sanctuary in Brazil to rescue elephants in captivity there. Really, it’s just a matter of getting on the internet and finding something you’re interested in. There are many wonderful, effective elephant protection organizations.


Young orphan elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya are herded by their keepers to the feeding and play area. Credit: Anita Ritenour, 2011, sourced via the Creative Commons.

S. You are also the founder of Zoocheck, a wildlife protection charity that works to protect the interests of wild animals globally. What are some of the initiatives Zoocheck is currently involved in?

R. Zoocheck always has a lot going on. As a campaigning wildlife protection organization, we’re involved in a broad range of investigative and legislative initiatives and litigations. Some of our efforts are focused on issues that affect large numbers of animals, but we also campaign to help individual animals in need as well. We’ve rescued monkeys, lemurs, big cats and, of course, elephants. We’re also trying to help Lucy, a Sri Lankan elephant that has lived at a zoo in Edmonton for almost her entire life. She’s in her early forties and all alone, and the zoo has dug in their heels about moving her. They want to keep her. We’re trying to get her out, but it’s been a long-term effort and we haven’t yet been successful. We’ve also been trying for a number of years to secure the release of a polar bear who has lived for more than two decades in a Mexican zoo, and we’re working to raise awareness about polar bears and other animals in Latin-American zoos. We also have an ongoing initiative to help animals in zoos in Ontario. We’ve worked across the country and internationally and have had tremendous success, but getting a law in place in Ontario has been a real challenge. The number of very poor zoos has dropped dramatically but there are still a number of them out there. Zoocheck also helps wildlife in the wild through a range of activities, such as funding aerial anti-poaching patrols in Africa, fighting organized culling of waterbirds in parks and reserves and campaigning to protect wild horses in western Canada. One initiative that is generating a lot of attention recently is the creation of the first cold-water sea pen sanctuary for belugas and killer whales in the world. We are part of an international collective of scientists, organizations and others who are trying to make that happen.

S. Oh, that’s cool!

R. We’re working on scoping out the possibilities in Canada. There are a number of sanctuaries that can accommodate dolphins from temperate or tropical climates, but nowhere yet for cold water dolphin and whale species. Hopefully, there will be soon.

S. That’s great; I know the documentary Blackfish got a lot of attention.

R. Some of the Blackfish people are involved in this initiative.

S. Whales and other large sea mammals are also animals that don’t do well in captivity. It’s good to know there are initiatives trying to find better ways to keep them safe. Speaking of, I guess it was last week that the story broke about the silverback gorilla….

R. Right. Harambe.

S. Yes. It’s an awful story, but do you have any thoughts on it?

R. Well, you know… it’s hard to second-guess the actions of the zoo staff. I have no doubt they didn’t want to kill Harambe, but felt they had to. Having said that, in the video footage I saw it looked like Harmabe was behaving naturally, like a silverback should. It didn’t look like he was being aggressive. But I understand there were about ten minutes of the incident that were not recorded on video, so I don’t know what happened during that time. Regardless, I think it’s inevitable that the animal will be killed in a situation like that, if it poses an immediate lethal threat, whether real or perceived, to a child. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tapir, elephant, gorilla, whatever… if a child gets into a cage with a potentially dangerous animal, there’s a good chance the animal will die. So Harambe’s killing was not a surprise to me. But what was surprising is that afterward, so many people, including many in the media, were asking, “why was that gorilla there in the first place, what’s the purpose?”

S. Oh!

R. Of course this was a tragedy but, if there’s anything positive about it, it’s the fact that people are now asking and trying to answer some bigger questions: What on earth was a gorilla doing in Cincinnati? What purpose does that serve, and how does being in captivity impact that animal’s life? There are many important discussions going on; all you have to do is search them out on Google. I think Harambe’s death will prove to be one of those watershed moments that help move the agenda for animals in captivity, and perhaps other animals as well, forward to a more progressive place. Ten or fifteen years ago, these kinds of discussions were exceedingly rare. But now they seem to be relatively common. Harambe’s death, the killing and public dissection of Marius the giraffe in Denmark, and the release of documentary films like Blackfish and The Cove—they are all watershed moments that generate discussion and make people rethink their positions. For animals, that is a very good thing.


Memorial in honour of Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo. Photo credit: Kyle McCarthy on Flickr, 2016, sourced via the Creative Commons.

S. I hadn’t seen that layer growing out of the story, but I’m glad to know it’s happening. It’s the discussion that should be happening.

R. It’s occurring at a level that far exceeds anything I ever thought would happen.

S. That’s good. Last question: Can you give us any hints about your next project with Pajama Press?

R. Well, I’ve always been interested in bats because exploring caves is something I’ve done for the last 15 years or so. When I’m in caves, I encounter bats, and they’re fascinating animals. They’re small, but some of them live 30 or 40 years, making them very different from other creatures of a similar size. Bats are very intelligent and have great memories. One of the things that fascinated me is: I’d often be in the back of a cave, maybe ten or twelve hours from the entrance. To get there would require hundreds of turns and squeezes, but bats fly right to the backs of these caves using their echolocation. I asked a bat biologist, “how on earth do they do that?” and he said: “well, they remember, just like we do.” They’re utterly fascinating, and today bats are facing a lot of threats. The biggest one is disease, but they’re still persecuted in various parts of the world. There’s a need for a book that isn’t just about bat biology and behaviour, but about the realities that bats are facing today. Most of my books are advocacy tools. I’m interested in their potential to educate people and to help the animals. That’s what this one is about too. I want it to help bats.

If you missed the first part of this interview, you can find it here, or download both parts in .pdf format here. You can learn more about Rob’s efforts to rescue the three Toronto Zoo elephants and get them relocated to the PAWS Sanctuary in Elephant Journey, which can be found at an independent book store near you, or at a major retailer.

Resources Mentioned:
ZoocheckSave LucySave YupiCormorantsWild Horses
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust  (Africa)
Global Sanctuary for Elephants (Brazil)
Elephant Nature Park (Thailand)
Wildlife SOS (India)

Learn Even More:
How the Elephant Became the Newest Celebrity Cause” (NYT)
The Killer in the Pool” (Blackfish)
Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project (The Cove)
Harambe the Silverback Gorilla (Huffington Post) (Toronto Star)
Marius the Giraffe (The Guardian) (NatGeo)
Arturo, the World’s Saddest Animal (The Daily Mail)








Interview: Going on an Elephant Journey with Rob Laidlaw Part 1

Posted on July 11th, 2016 by pajamapress

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to sit down with Rob Laidlaw, the author of Elephant Journey, when he stopped by our office. He answered some of my questions about the incredible true story of three elephants’ transfer from the Toronto Zoo, and we chatted more about the welfare of animals in captivity and some of the challenges they face.

ElephantJourney_InternetS. Let’s start with your collaboration with our publisher, Gail Winskill, since you worked with her to produce Elephant Journey. What was it about the story of the three Toronto Zoo elephants that made it a good choice to adapt as a kids’ book?

R. I think there’s a number of different elements, one of them being that elephants are extremely popular animals. Everybody knows them; they’re charismatic mega-vertebrates that are extremely interesting animals when you look at them in a biological or behavioral sense. Not only that, it was a compelling story. This was the first time that I’m aware of that a city actually overrode an animal management decision of a major zoo and decided what was best for the animals. And of course, moving three elephants at any point in time to anywhere is a challenging task. A lot of different elements lent themselves to making it a compelling story for kids.

S. The book talks a lot about how the facilities in zoos aren’t adequate to support animals the size of elephants, especially because they can’t provide the space elephants need to keep them in shape. What about the elephants’ diets? Is that compromised in a zoo?

R. It can be. What you typically experience when you have animals in captivity, whether it’s elephants or naked mole rats, is a drastic alteration from what their natural diet would be to an artificial or formulated diet. In the wild an elephant or other large herbivore would be grazing on many species of plants, including grasses, bushes, flowers and trees, to name just a few. That provides them with diversity, not only in the nutritional value of the plants they eat, but it allows for a diversity of foraging behaviors. In captivity the diets for almost all animals are far simpler and more monotonous. What you see in elephants, particularly, is that their diets in captivity may not lend themselves to actually keeping their mouths and teeth healthy. And of course you get an almost complete absence of normal foraging behaviors because food is just given to them.

S. On the subject of exotic animals in zoos, would you consider the recent introduction of the giant pandas at the Toronto Zoo to be a success or a failure?

R. It depends on how you look at it. If you’re looking at it from the Zoo’s perspective, looking for a tourist attraction that will provide a short-term bump in attendance and revenues, then maybe you’d say it was a good idea. But when you look at the impact of bringing in very costly animals and how that might impact the animals that are already at the zoo, then I think you might reasonably say that it was probably not a good idea. All the resources that were put into accommodating the pandas, including millions of dollars in preparatory costs and ongoing costs while they’re here in Toronto, mean that those resources are not going to upgrades and repairs to enclosures for the animals that are already at the zoo. And in the big-picture scenario, when you’re looking at the conservation of endangered species, particularly pandas, I don’t believe having them in Toronto helps pandas in the wild in the slightest.

S. When I was researching that story I found there’s been a push by city counsellors to keep the twin panda cubs in Toronto longer. How do you feel about that?

R. I think it’s largely based on belief that they will continue to attract people to the zoo. Of course there are some people who see it as a point of pride for the city because the pandas were born here and they want to keep them. But from everything I know, it comes down to money. They believe these animals are going to generate an increased number of visitors and therefore increased revenue. It doesn’t usually work out like that, however. If you look at these panda loans over the long-term they’re often money-losing propositions.

S. Interesting…

R. In many zoos they’ve been extremely problematic and a massive burden on the facilities that have the animals. They’re not typically very good fundraisers. For the term of the loan, usually about five years, they’ll generate an increase in visitorship and revenues for the first two or three years, but then it drops off back to pretty much normal. Some zoos don’t even begin to recoup the costs associated with acquiring and displaying pandas.

S. Is there one zoo anywhere in the world that does a better job than most at respecting animals’ rights?

R. There are a few examples. There’s a small zoo started by the author Gerald Durrell several decades ago called the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. It’s a very small zoo on Jersey Island in the English Channel. They don’t have many of the big, charismatic animals that most zoos feel they need to attract visitors. What makes them really different however is that they allocate a substantial proportion of their budget towards legitimate in-situ conservation of wildlife. That means they work in these animals’ countries of origin on the politics of protecting animals and their habitats, so they have stable, ecologically-intact areas where they can release the surplus from their breeding efforts and where they can monitor them to ensure there’s a chance of survival. As well, there are all kinds of non-zoo facilities that people can visit to view animals in captivity, but they’re not traditional zoo environments. Take for example, where the Toronto Zoo elephants went, to the amazing PAWS Sanctuary in California. They’re not open every day but they do have open houses several times a year. There are other sanctuaries like that, where people can go and see a different form of captivity that’s far more benign in terms of its impact on animal welfare. In sanctuaries it’s often a more equitable type of relationship between us and the animals, and often any viewing that occurs is on the animals’ terms. If you look outside of the zoo arena at sanctuaries and specialist conservation centers, you can find all kinds of wonderful, innovative ideas on how to do things better.

iringa toka_0833

Iringa and Toka at the PAWS Sanctuary in California.

S. I know I’ve seen places, probably in Kenya, where people can come have breakfast and there will be giraffes walking the grounds, or a hotel where elephants tend to walk through the lobby because that’s where they want to be at that time.

R. Throughout Africa there are a number of game reserves, they’re quite extensive in South Africa and a few other nations. Some of them will have animals that—on their own terms—will come and visit people. So you can encounter hippos, you can encounter elephants, and even some of the big cats. These reserves are very different from most captive settings because they are expansive, sometimes thousands of hectares in size, natural and the animals have the opportunity not to be seen if they don’t want to. They usually know they don’t have anything to fear from people, so they’re often moving about where they want. I believe that qualitatively the human experience of viewing animals in this kind of situation is orders of magnitude higher than seeing an animal in a cage, entirely removed from its ecological context.

S. How long did it take to get the three elephants transferred out of the Toronto Zoo and what was the most challenging part of that process?

R. The whole campaign to secure the release of the elephants took two and a half to three years. The reason for that was because the Zoo didn’t want to move the elephants where we wanted them to go. As well, a substantial number of external zoo supporters tried to stop it. It was a real challenge politically; in fact I think it was the most politicized thing we’ve ever been involved in. There were constant hurdles and delays, and it took time to address them all and to secure the release of the elephants. Right up until the elephants were driven out of the zoo on the trucks, people were trying to stop it.

S. From my understanding, now there are no elephants at the Toronto Zoo. Do you think they will ever try to acquire more?

R. No. I would be very surprised if they tried to obtain elephants again. There are not that many elephants out there. Approximately 300 elephants reside in North American zoos, and there are some in private hands as well. Importations from the wild are few and far between. Given what happened with the Toronto elephants, and the fact that their enclosure has already been refurbished, cost reasons alone would be an impediment to the Zoo getting elephants again. I think the days of northern zoos, with their relatively long winters, having elephant exhibits are gradually coming to a close.

S. That’s probably a good thing. Even before I encountered your book, or knew much at all about zoos or animals in captivity, it never sat well with me: that these animals that are native to hot climates have to sit through our winters.

R. It’s not that they can’t tolerate cool temperatures at all, because they can for short periods and there are things zoos can do to mitigate the weather concerns, at least partially. But when you get consistently cold weather over a period of weeks or months, it forces elephants and other warm-weather animals into indoor accommodations. That means they have even less space than they would in warmer weather when they can be outdoors, a less complex environment and therefore less physical and psychological stimulation. It’s compressing usually wide-ranging animals into ever-smaller conditions because of the cold that really exacerbates the problems they face from being in captivity in the first place.

S. Elephants are very smart and they have their own personalities, which is something the book makes very clear when it introduces Toka, Thika and Iringa. You got the chance to spend time with each of these elephants. Can you speak to what each of them was like in person?

R. Most of my direct exposure to them was on the trip down, because I was in the vehicle that followed the two trucks. What I saw were elephants that were just like other elephants I’ve seen. They seemed intelligent and inquisitive and they knew something was going on every time we stopped. When the doors were opened for feeding, watering and cleaning, they would extend their trunks out as far as they could. I assume they were trying to figure out what was going on. I think someone who had worked with them, or who had worked directly with other elephants, might notice a lot more than I would. But certainly you notice that when they’re looking at you, there’s somebody in there who’s intelligent and thinking. Of course moving any animal is a high-stress situation, so their normal behaviors and individual idiosyncrasies may not be as apparent in that situation, and certainly not to somebody like me who doesn’t know them well. From the sanctuary staff we now hear about their specific personality traits, like Thika’s curiousness, playfulness or boisterous behaviour. I’m sure the keepers at the zoo knew their moods, likes and dislikes, and now the sanctuary’s caretakers get to see them too, as well as how different they are from each other, just like people.

+thika 2280 (2)

Thika enjoying a beautiful day at PAWS.

. Was the trip to California stressful for you, or was it exciting because you knew the elephants were going somewhere better suited to them? What were your feelings?

R. I was just glad they were finally out of the zoo. It had been such a long campaign and we were tired of it. When they were finally on their way, there was a bit of a sense of relief. We’d overcome all the blockades that had been put in front of us. I have to admit, there was a little bit of stress during the move. When you’re moving any animals—but particularly large animals—the biggest fear is that they might collapse and go down. If that happens all kinds of physical problems can result, and in some cases, it can be just a matter of time before the animals are dead. We knew that the elephants had some health issues, particularly Iringa, but you never know how that will affect them during transport. Once they got to the sanctuary there were various benchmarks: surviving a week, then a month, then a year, because you never know. There are no guarantees that everything will work out fine. Issues can arise after the fact, animals can not only die in transport, they can also die afterwards because of the stress and trauma of it. But Toka, Thika and Iringa did well on the journey and arrived safely at PAWS.

Check out Part Two of our interview with Rob Laidlaw for more about elephants in the wild, and animal conservation efforts around the world. You can find your own copy of Elephant Journey at an independent book store near you, or at a major retailer to learn even more about Toka, Thika and Iringa.

Resources Mentioned:
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
PAWS Sanctuary and its Resident Elephants
Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia




CCBC Interviews Suzanne Del Rizzo

Posted on June 1st, 2016 by pajamapress

CCBC has interviewed Suzanne Del Rizzo, the illustrator of Sky Pig by Jan L. Coates, for their June 2016 newsletter. She discusses how she became an illustrator, her creative process, the books she and her kids are loving just now, and what’s next for her.

SkyPig_WebsiteSky Pig just hit the shelves in April, and I had so much fun illustrating it. Sky Pig was written by Jan Coates, and published by Pajama Press. When I read the manuscript, I was immediately drawn to the extraordinary friendship between Jack and his pig-pal, Ollie, as he helps his friend try (and try and try…) to achieve his dream of flying. Jan’s lovely story gave me lots of room creatively. I had a blast channeling my inner kid, dreaming up the whimsical flying contraptions that Jack constructs for Ollie.”

Click here to read the rest of the review.

Sky Pig just hit the shelves in April, and I had so much fun illustrating it. Sky Pig was written by Jan Coates, and published by Pajama Press. When I read the manuscript, I was immediately drawn to the extraordinary friendship between Jack and his pig-pal, Ollie, as he helps his friend try (and try and try…) to achieve his dream of flying. Jan’s lovely story gave me lots of room creatively. I had a blast channeling my inner kid, dreaming up the whimsical flying contraptions that Jack constructs for Ollie. – See more at:

Sky Pig just hit the shelves in April, and I had so much fun illustrating it. Sky Pig was written by Jan Coates, and published by Pajama Press. When I read the manuscript, I was immediately drawn to the extraordinary friendship between Jack and his pig-pal, Ollie, as he helps his friend try (and try and try…) to achieve his dream of flying. Jan’s lovely story gave me lots of room creatively. I had a blast channeling my inner kid, dreaming up the whimsical flying contraptions that Jack constructs for Ollie. – See more at:

Sky Pig just hit the shelves in April, and I had so much fun illustrating it. Sky Pig was written by Jan Coates, and published by Pajama Press. When I read the manuscript, I was immediately drawn to the extraordinary friendship between Jack and his pig-pal, Ollie, as he helps his friend try (and try and try…) to achieve his dream of flying. Jan’s lovely story gave me lots of room creatively. I had a blast channeling my inner kid, dreaming up the whimsical flying contraptions that Jack constructs for Ollie. – See more at:
Sky Pig just hit the shelves in April, and I had so much fun illustrating it. Sky Pig was written by Jan Coates, and published by Pajama Press. When I read the manuscript, I was immediately drawn to the extraordinary friendship between Jack and his pig-pal, Ollie, as he helps his friend try (and try and try…) to achieve his dream of flying. Jan’s lovely story gave me lots of room creatively. I had a blast channeling my inner kid, dreaming up the whimsical flying contraptions that Jack constructs for Ollie. – See more at:

Sky Pig just hit the shelves in April, and I had so much fun illustrating it. Sky Pig was written by Jan Coates, and published by Pajama Press. When I read the manuscript, I was immediately drawn to the extraordinary friendship between Jack and his pig-pal, Ollie, as he helps his friend try (and try and try…) to achieve his dream of flying. Jan’s lovely story gave me lots of room creatively. I had a blast channeling my inner kid, dreaming up the whimsical flying contraptions that Jack constructs for Ollie. – See more at:
Sky Pig just hit the shelves in April, and I had so much fun illustrating it. Sky Pig was written by Jan Coates, and published by Pajama Press. When I read the manuscript, I was immediately drawn to the extraordinary friendship between Jack and his pig-pal, Ollie, as he helps his friend try (and try and try…) to achieve his dream of flying. Jan’s lovely story gave me lots of room creatively. I had a blast channeling my inner kid, dreaming up the whimsical flying contraptions that Jack constructs for Ollie. – See more at:”

Arthur Biyarslanov discusses his Next Round

Posted on May 30th, 2016 by pajamapress

Arthur Biyarslanov came to Canada as a child after fleeing the second Chechen war with his family, now at the age of twenty-one, the “Chechen Wolf” is a champion amateur boxer who won gold for Canada in the Pan Am Games. It’s a busy time for Arthur; he is currently training for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and is looking forward to the release of his upcoming biography, Next Round: A Young Athlete’s Journey to Gold by John Spray. He dropped by the office earlier, and I sat down with him to chat about the many exciting things he’s got on the go.


Arthur and John holding copies of the freshly printed Next Round at the Pajama Press offices.

S. You’re going to be representing Canada in the 2016 Summer Olympics. What are you most looking forward to about that?

A. I’m very excited because it’s my goal, and I always wanted to get to the Olympics. What I also want to do now is win another medal for Canada because it’s been so long. I always go for winning gold. I don’t like silver or bronze, so I’m going to try everything I can to get another gold medal and hear the national anthem for Canada. It’s my way of giving back. That’s what I want to do.

S. How long has it been since we’ve won in boxing?

A. The last person to win a gold medal was Lennox Lewis (Sugar Ray Leonard) in 1988.

S. Oh wow, that was before we were born.

A. It’s been many years. It’ll be nice to hear the national anthem again.

S. Will it be your first time visiting Brazil?

A. Yeah.

S. Excited?

A. Yeah, really excited.

S. What sort of training are you doing to prepare for the Olympics?

A. I’m training every day. I don’t work or anything; my job is just training. I train two or three times a day. I have two different coaches, a strength conditioning coach and a boxing coach. I work with them every day, six days a week and Sundays are my day off.

S. When you say you’re training two to three times a day, how many hours at a time are we talking about?

A. It depends what type of training, whether I’m going light or hard. It’s usually around 1 to 2 hours each session.

S. And that’s manageable, or is it very difficult?

A. I always have to take naps in between to re-energize for my next bout of training. I don’t really get much time to do anything. I just train, sleep, train, sleep.

S. If I decided I wanted to start boxing, what’s your best tip for me?

A. The hard part is staying in boxing. When I first started I didn’t want to box, I wanted to do other things. So I would say, be dedicated to what you do because when you start off, you’re obviously not going to be good. It’s going to take time to get better. You’re going to get frustrated, you’re going to hate it, but you’ll only get better and better each time you go. So just stay in the gym.

S. What inspires you to stay with it?

A. It’s how far I came, from nothing to something. I never thought I’d be a boxer. I always loved soccer. I started boxing, and I was very bad. I didn’t know how to box at all. Now I’m winning nationals, I’m winning international tournaments. I get a great feeling after every win. I get to travel to different countries and it’s very nice. It keeps me going.

S. Let’s talk about your book for a little bit. What was your favourite part of having a biography written about you?

A. It’s awesome. People always ask me about my background. I don’t like thinking about the past, so I make my answers very short. But this book shows every detail of my story, and that’s what I like most about it. It tells you about my childhood, how I grew up and how I switched from one sport to another. All the main points are in it.

S. You were a soccer player before you did boxing. What made you make the switch?

A. My brother forced me to (laughs). I didn’t want to be a boxer, but I was forced into it and then I kept winning.

John Spray is the writer you collaborated with to produce Next Round. What was fun about working with him?

A. We went to a baseball game a few months back, and it was really nice. We got front-row seats and it was a great time. John’s a really good guy and I’m glad I met him.

S. John was an amateur boxer himself, for a while.

A. He told me a bunch of stories about when he used to fight. It was great knowing someone who has been in the same position as me as a boxer, and who understood what it was like to be in the ring.

S. He was definitely a good choice to write Next Round. What do you hope people will like most about the book?

A. The pictures. There are a lot of pictures from when I was young. It’s crazy how young I look, from being an innocent looking kid to becoming a boxer. I didn’t look like a boxer then, I had long hair and I looked like a cute little kid. I love that it shows the transition.

S. I’ve seen pictures of you just after fights too, and those are also great photos.

A. Yeah, those pictures are awesome.

S. So, you did come to Canada as a refugee. What would you tell other young refugees who might be coming into the country now?

A. Take advantage of it, because you get offered a lot of opportunities here like sports, education, freedoms. Life, I’d say, is a lot better here than in most of the countries in the world, so enjoy it to the max and take all the opportunities you can get!

Next Round: A Young Athlete’s Journey to Gold by John Spray is the juvenile biography chronicling Arthur’s journey to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will be available on June 15th, and officially published 15th, just in time for the Olympics. Order your copy today.

Diversity Day Interview with Karen Bass

Posted on May 21st, 2016 by pajamapress

The Hill is a supernatural survival-thriller by award-winning author Karen Bass that draws inspiration from the true story of a remote plane crash and the Cree Wîhtiko legend. For the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, I sat down with Karen to discuss The Hill’s protagonists: Jared, an affluent white teen from Edmonton, and Kyle, the Cree teenager who rescues him, and how the relationship between the two boys reflects the racial and cultural tensions existing between these two groups in Canada today.


TheHill_WebsiteS. The Hill was the first of the Young Adult titles I read when I started my internship at Pajama Press, and I really enjoyed it. My favourite part was the banter between two boys. Was that fun to write or was that challenging in ways you didn’t expect?

K. It was mostly fun. I grew up in a family that used sarcasm an awful lot, and we were always poking at each other. So I was able to draw on that. And it was two teenagers so they do poke, poke, poke.

S. They do read like two teenagers.

K. Well that’s good.

S. What about the racial component to that dialogue? Where did that come from? Were you influenced by people you were speaking to at the time, because I know you did a lot of research for the book, or does it from your own lived experience?

K. I grew up in rural Alberta, so like a lot of rural Canada I think you see a lot of racism that maybe isn’t apparent in the cities, at least between First Nations and white communities. So I was certainly able to draw on what I’d seen myself, and the attitudes that I see in other people. In terms of Kyle and how he feels about it, that was partly talking to First Nations friends and partly whole empathy thing that writers have to draw on. Being able to put myself into his shoes and, you know, ask “how would I feel?”

S. I really enjoyed Kyle because he was the most “in tune” fifteen-year-old boy I’ve ever seen. He initiates a lot of the conversation between himself and Jared. Some of the ideas he brings to it are concepts that I first encountered in university. Why was it coming from him?

K. It was coming from him partly because Jared was oblivious. A lot of people do live their lives that way, where they don’t even look at how they’re affecting other people in their word choices or their actions. They don’t think about anybody that isn’t within their circle. It wouldn’t have sounded right coming from Jared. He was very…what did they call it? Affluenza? I hate that term, but that was his thing.

S. I actually have a note on how oblivious Jared is, but although he’s oblivious, he doesn’t seem to be malicious about. Was that an important part of how you chose to represent his ignorance?

K. I think if he had been malicious, he and Kyle would never have been able to connect and work together. Sometimes you have to look at where you need the characters to go and make sure their personalities are such that they can shift a little bit. Otherwise you would just have them sniping at each other. It is only four days in their time, so you’re not going to necessarily make huge leaps in that time, it’s more like small shifts. Someone who was just outright mean, it wouldn’t have worked.

S. I liked that there was room for Jared to become a bit more sensitive toward issues of race and class. Whereas someone who was more malicious might have dug their feet in and been more resistant.

K. Well, I think someone like that would have had much more of an “I don’t really care” attitude. Whereas Jared, maybe partly because his life is on the line, realizes that he’s at a point of disadvantage and that does make him more open to listen to what Kyle is saying. Once it finally sinks in that this isn’t his environment and he’s in a whole lot of trouble.

S. On that note, you’re from rural Alberta, so you’re very familiar with the landscape that appears in The Hill.

K. Oh, yes.

S. But you’re not a First Nations person or Cree yourself. Where do you think that situates you in regards to the larger discussion that was going on in the novel?

K. I guess I would be called an ally, if anything. I’m hopefully the person who is nudging other whites to reconsider their position. I do run across a lot of casual racism. It’s not necessarily malicious, but it is very much engrained. “This is what my parents and grandparents told me, so this is what I believe,” whether it’s about First Nations people being lazy, or whatever, which is just nonsense. Stereotypes are quite often nonsense, but the perpetuation is what causes the problem.

S. In terms of words and how we use them, Kyle frequently directs the Cree word “Moniyaw” (white man) at Jared. It’s also racial term, but somehow it seems less objectionable than it would if it came from the other direction. Does that speak to the power dynamics between two groups or how racism works in our culture?

K. I think I had him doing that as a way he could poke at Jared. For sure it was the idea that terms don’t always have to be loaded. To say ‘white man,’ it’s just a fact. It’s just who Jared is, as opposed to some of the other words we use for people of other groups or that we hear in society. Those are much more loaded. I don’t think it was ever malicious on Kyle’s part. Some of these things, it’s just your character when they come alive, they decide. I hope it’s not taken maliciously, although Jared doesn’t really appreciate it when he finds out what it means.

S. No, and I think I might have taken that cue from him.

K. I think what you’ve said about power issues is very valid. There is definitely a power imbalance and you need to be aware of that and be sensitive to it. Which teenagers are never going to be.

S. Would you ever revisit these characters at all, or do you think The Hill is their story and they’re done?

K. I don’t tend to revisit characters. There’s one or two books where I could maybe write a sequel, but I haven’t looked at it enough to actually do it. They’re probably done. Sometimes it’s fun to leave it in the readers’ hands and say, “what do you think happens with them?”

S. I think you wrapped it up well. I just really liked the boys and felt like I should ask. That’s all the questions I came up with. Is there anything else you’d like to say about the boys or diversity in YA fiction?

K. I think we’re seeing a lot more diversity in Young Adult fiction, which is awesome. In terms of First Nations you’re starting to see more First Nations writers who are really good writers, and I love that. People should have the wherewithal and the skills to tell their own stories.

S. So much storytelling is involved in First Nations cultures, and it’s so important.

K. A lot of it is really just learning to take that oral tradition and put it on paper. You’re seeing more film-making and stuff too, and I love it. I think it’ll only get better.

S. That’s great. Thanks for sitting down with me and answering my questions! I enjoyed it.


Click here to learn more about The Hill.

Learn more about World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development (Diversity Day).


Interview with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch: Dance of the Banished and the Armenian Genocide

Posted on April 23rd, 2015 by pajamapress

On April 24, 2015, Armenians around the world will mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a systematic campaign by Turkish leaders in the Ottoman Empire to remove the empire’s Christian Armenian population. As evidenced by recent headlines, the subject is controversial today because the Turkish government denies that these deportations and killings can be labelled “genocide.”

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, a Canadian author of books for children and teens, will also be marking the anniversary. Skrypuch is no stranger to controversial history; her picture book Enough, written about the holodomor, earned her both death threats from angry readers and a medal from the President of Ukraine: the Order of Princess Olha. She has gone on to write over twenty other books for young readers, including her recent YA novel Dance of the Banished, which takes place during the Armenian Genocide. Skrypuch’s week is filled with events commemorating the genocide’s anniversary, but she took some time to speak with us about Dance of the Banished and why she writes books for young people about difficult subjects.

Zeynep’s portion of the story takes place in a tumultuous time and place: the Ottoman Empire during the Young Turk revolution and the Armenian Genocide. What challenges did you face in your research for Zeynep’s perspective?
DanceOfTheBanished_HR_RGBI rely heavily on first person accounts to build scenes and timelines in my novels. The problem while writing Dance of the Banished was that I could find no first person account from the perspective of an Alevi Kurd, even though thousands of Alevi Kurds witnessed the Genocide and their rescue operations are well-documented in other first person accounts. The trick was to wade through first person accounts of missionaries, Genocide survivors and others and piece together what Zeynep’s life would have been like during WWI and the Armenian Genocide. I also had to read up on Alevi beliefs. After I finished writing the novel, I sent it to Suleyman Goven, who is of Alevi Kurd heritage. He gave me detailed feedback to make Zeynep more authentic.

This is not the first time you have written about controversial historical events. What draws you to tell the stories that some would rather see forgotten?
I feel a responsibility to give a voice to people whose experiences have been silenced for political or religious reasons. I need to be passionate about my subject because otherwise I’d get bored with my own words. Writing these untold bits of history is my way of honouring the survivors.

Why do you think it is important for books on these subjects to be directed at children and young adults?
If I had written this book for adults I would have had to pad it with fluff and I don’t like writing fluff. I wanted to write a short but powerful and historically accurate novel. That by definition is a young adult novel.

The experiences of Ali in Dance of the Banished were based on actual events that took place in Canada during World War I, but that were forgotten for nearly a century. How did you come across the story?
Ali is interned by Canada in WWI. I knew about this incident for quite some time as my own grandfather had been interned. What I didn’t know was that 100 men who had emigrated from the Ottoman Empire and lived in Brantford had been interned. That information was brought to me by two Brantford historians. Figuring out who these men were became a journey in itself.

This year has been a time of commemoration both for the Armenian Genocide and the internment of so-called enemy aliens in Canada during World War I. You have been involved in events and speaking engagements for both. Have you had any particularly memorable experiences?
The local commemoration of the centenary of WWI internment took place on August 22, which was a Friday, and we began it at 11am. Despite it being held right before a long weekend and in the middle of a work day, the church hall was packed. Most people interned had been Ukrainian, but people from all different backgrounds came out. One woman who came out was Sharon Gashgarian, who was of Ukrainian heritage but had married an Armenian. She was blown away by the cover art on Dance of the Banished and contacted me later, asking permission to create a fabric art work based on the cover art. I contacted Pascal Milelli, the artist commissioned to create a painting for the cover, and he was fine with Sharon’s request.

I bought the original, and showed it to Sharon.

Tonight (April 21) I did a reading at the Brantford Public Library to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. This was part of a worldwide reading event to pay tribute to the many writers who have been killed for speaking out about the Genocide. Sharon attended, and she brought her fabric art. I brought Pascal’s original and we have both of them up on easels, covered with Ukrainian shawls. We revealed them both to the audience and Sharon presented me with her art work. It is breathtaking.

For the rest of the month, Sharon’s fabric art will be hanging in the front window of the Brantford Public Library, surrounded by my books and other books about the Armenian Genocide.

Click here to download this interview in PDF format.


Malala recommends Deborah Ellis

Posted on August 21st, 2014 by pajamapress

In an interview with the New York Times Sunday Book Review, educational activist Malala Yousafzai spoke about one of her favourite contemporary authors, Deborah Ellis:

Malala_Yousafzai_par_Claude_Truong-Ngoc_novembre_2013“I like writers who can show me worlds I know nothing about, but my favorites are those who create characters or worlds which feel realistic and familiar to me, or who can make me feel inspired. I discovered Deborah Ellis’s books in the school library after my head teacher encouraged me to go beyond the school curriculum and look for books I might enjoy. This wasn’t long after I arrived in Britain, and I was missing my friends terribly. Reading about Afghanistan made me feel like being back at home. This is the power of books. They can take you to places which are beyond reach.”

Asked what books she would recommend for young people who want to understand the situation for girls and women in Pakistan today, Malala suggested Mud City, where “Ellis beautifully captures childhood in war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan.” When the interviewer asked for a book recommendation for all girls to read, Malala replied, “‘The Breadwinner,’ by Deborah Ellis…’The Breadwinner’ reminds us how courageous and strong women are around the world.”

Malala Yousafzai has inspired the world as an activist and co-author of the the book, I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. You can read her full interview with the New York Times Sunday Book Review here.

Click here to learn about Deborah Ellis’ latest book, Moon at Nine.
Photo by Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons – cc-by-sa-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Simcoe Reformer discusses Moon at Nine with Deborah Ellis

Posted on July 3rd, 2014 by pajamapress

“While the book covers a nationality and subject matter she hasn’t covered yet, it does have many of the same themes.

“I write about courage and how people find it,” said Ellis.


Ellis’ work often explores social justice and human rights.

She noted the issues explored in Moon at Nine will resonate with people in many countries.”

Click here to read the full article.

Interview with Victoria Allenby

Posted on November 15th, 2013 by pajamapress

V.AllenbyVictoria Allenby is the author of Nat the Cat Can Sleep Like That, a picture book illustrated by Tara Anderson that CM Magazine has “Highly Recommended” as “a perfect choice for bedtime and storytimes for young children.” This week Victoria chatted with Pajama Press publicist Erin Woods about her own story. This transcript is part of that conversation.

[E] Nat the Cat Can Sleep Like That came out in September—your first book. How has the experience been so far?
[V] It’s been surreal, really. I mean, I’m an author? Like, a real one with books on the shelves of stores where I shop? But it’s true. I really am. My mom called me one day to tell me that my hometown indie bookstore had Nat face-out on a rack, which means the owner must have really liked it. I almost stopped breathing. That’s the store that taught me what good taste in books was when I was growing up.
So that’s a pretty high commendation for you.
The highest. Absolutely.
I know this is the oldest interview question there is, but where did Nat the Cat Can Sleep Like That come from? What inspired it?
Ugh, this is so embarrassing. Do I have to? Okay, alright, it was Internet pictures of cats. I know, right? Lame-o. But when someone posts a funny cat picture I can’t stop myself from clicking it. I can’t.
So you were looking at funny cat photos?
Yeah. There was a… I don’t know, a collection someone had posted. Cats sleeping in awkward poses or something. And I have a cat. I had a cat growing up and I have one now. They’re ridiculous, the way they can sleep anywhere, any way. I’m kind of really jealous of that. Anyway, I thought, who can’t relate to a poem about a cat sleeping all over the place?
Fair enough. And you’ve brought up another point I wanted to talk about: poetry.
Oh, I like poetry.
I love poetry.
It’s very important to you?
Yes. Well, I don’t think about it like that, I mean, not like a religion is very important or whatever. But it’s something I’ve always done. I can’t help it.
How long is always?
Oh, since I was five? Six? My family has some very old poems of mine somewhere.
Are they any good?
Uhhh… well. The word choice is funny. And the spelling is terrible. And the subject matter is….. Metrically, though, they’re not bad. Rhythm was easy for me. I think I was born with rhythm. Like some people are born with… with freckles. Are babies born with freckles?
…I don’t know.
Do you think it’s important for kids to learn about rhythm and rhyme?
Yes. Absolutely. It trains their ear. It makes them enjoy language. It makes reading easier. They can, you know, predict what’s coming next because of the way the sentence sounds. And they can memorize the book and pretend they’re reading, which is the first step.
Are you a big reader?
Oh, yes. Huge. Monstrous. I’m a—a—oh, what’s it’s name… Japan… Godzilla! I’m a Godzilla of a reader.
That big! What do you read?
Oh, anything. History, poetry, YA if it isn’t too full of vampires or mean girls. I’m on a fantasy kick right now. Last year it was urban homesteading.
Do you think you’ll ever try your hand at writing any genres other than picture books?
Possibly. I do have novels and partial novels scattered around from my high school years. They’re horrible, though. It’s a very different skill set to write a novel than a picture book.
So what’s next? Do you have any more picture books in the works?
Oh, I’ve written about a hundred manuscripts and I hate them all [Laughs]. No, that’s not true. I have two that I’m kind of nursing along, fixing a word here and there, getting them ready for the world. But it’s actually a scary thing, submitting your second manuscript. Way scarier than your first. Now there’s a precedent. Now you’re supposed to know what you’re doing, and what if you don’t? What if you do get it published, but then the reviewers say, “Well, it’s not bad, but it isn’t as good as the first one.”?
Do you think that will happen?
Noooo… well, I think about it happening a lot. Do you think if I worry enough I can stop it from happening? Murphy’s law?
That sounds reasonable to me.
Good. Then it won’t happen. My second book will be spectacular.
I’m glad to hear it.
Me too! What a relief.
This interview has been edited for length

To learn more about Victoria, visit her website here.

Meghan Marentette interview on Global TV

Posted on November 14th, 2013 by pajamapress

Meghan  Marentette‘s mouse adventure novel The Stowaways has been scampering into hearts across the country. Today the well-travelled mice made an appearance with their author on Global TV Halifax. You can watch the interview below, complete with some shots of Dean Griffiths’ wonderful illustrations.